In any other situation, Michelle Pfeiffer would have probably tried to ditch me.
It’s an early December day, one of the first gray and rainy ones in Los Angeles, Pfeiffer says, and we’re talking over Zoom. She’s wearing a black turtleneck and glasses and sitting in an airy beige and white bedroom at home, explaining how she habitually liberates herself from social interactions—much like the one we’re having.
“There’s a line in The Age of Innocence—I’m not sure if it’s actually in the novel or just in the movie—that says, ‘Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it,’” says Pfeiffer, who starred in Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of the Edith Wharton classic. “I’ve been doing that my entire life.”
Take, for example, Pfeiffer’s own 40th birthday. “Somebody threw a party for me, and it was just the worst evening,” she says. “I have an eclectic group of friends, and they don’t necessarily gel, so I felt responsible—Why aren’t they talking? Are they not having a good time? I felt responsible, and I think that was the last party I ever had.”
It’s no surprise she has escape on her mind. After all, at this point we’ve been holed up at home for months—Pfeiffer in California with her husband and two grown kids, me in a Brooklyn apartment that I’m slightly embarrassed to let her see. But we are also discussing her turn in this month’s French Exit.
The title of the black comedy, adapted from Patrick deWitt’s novel, refers to Pfeiffer’s character’s decision to flee Manhattan and live out her days in France, as well as to the well-worn trick of leaving a party without saying goodbye. The latter is something to which Pfeiffer says she can definitely relate. “I didn’t realize that there was something called a French exit until I read this script,” she says. “And it’s something I do, so it made me feel better that this thing actually has a name.”
The irony of the situation is that French Exit is forcing Pfeiffer to make an entrance—or at least a return. The movie premiered in October as the closing night selection at the New York Film Festival, earning strong reviews (Variety said it “blisters amid the rarefied air of Tom Wolfe or Whit Stillman, but it’s nicely cut with the schadenfreude of Schitt’s Creek”) and pushing Pfeiffer back into the spotlight—and serious awards contention; she just received a Golden Globe nomination—for her darkly funny performance.
Pfeiffer’s Frances Price is an Upper East Side grande dame whose predicament, as she tells her disapproving accountant, is that “my plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept and keep not dying, and here I am.” More specifically, she’s the widowed mother of a slightly stunted grown son (played by Lucas Hedges), and she has decided to take the last of her late, not-entirely-beloved husband’s fortune to Paris, where she can stay in a friend’s apartment, avoid the wagging tongues of New York society frenemies, and retain a bit of dignity in her final act. If it isn’t obvious from that description, the film is a comedy.
In Pfeiffer’s care, Frances may be down on her luck, but she’s never willing to lose. This becomes apparent to everyone who goes up against her, from her late husband, who disappointed her in life and has seemingly been reincarnated as her cat, to her son, who follows her to Europe out of filial duty but finds his mother to be more formidable than he assumed. It’s even clear to a rude Parisian waiter, whose dismissiveness is one-upped by Frances when she spritzes a café’s centerpiece with perfume and then sets it ablaze.
The movie’s humor is deliciously mannered. Frances is the sort of woman to whom a new acquaintance says, “Of course I know who you are: I grew up in New York City.” Her housekeeper refuses to be paid by check. When Frances holds a séance, she enlists the help of the clairvoyant her son slept with on their ocean liner from the United States. Her habit of greeting disaster with a smirk gives a shot of wit to events that could otherwise be tragic. It’s a role that requires an actress with not only talent and experience but also true presence.
“When I was developing the script, I thought a lot about Bette Davis or Rita Hayworth, actresses from a different generation,” says French Exit director Azazel Jacobs. “When we started thinking about casting, Michelle’s name was at the top of the list.” Jacobs had Pfeiffer in mind after seeing her Emmy- and Golden Globe–nominated turn as Ruth Madoff (a character she says helped inspire Frances) in The Wizard of Lies and her performance in Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 thriller Mother!.
“Michelle’s recent work showed me somebody who was still very hungry, even though she had proven herself,” Jacobs says. “So I sent her the script. When I heard that she wanted to meet, I did my best to prepare, but nothing could have prepared me for immediately feeling like I would do anything to work with this person.”
What drew Pfeiffer to the part was the chance to play someone completely unlike herself. “There’s something incredibly liberating about somebody who speaks her mind so freely,” she says. “She can be rude and very curt at times, but I loved her take-no-prisoners attitude. We spend our entire lives trying to be polite, trying to not upset the apple cart, and she doesn’t really have any of that.”
Hedges confirms that Frances is as different from Pfeiffer as possible. “She’s a very easygoing person, and that comes through in her process,” he says. “Frances is a performer, and [in portraying her] Michelle was performing, but the second the scene stopped, she was nothing like her character.”
Pfeiffer probably isn’t much like any of her characters—and there have been plenty. The California native, who came to acting after a stint in beauty pageants, made her film debut in 1980, opposite Tony Danza in The Hollywood Knights, and two years later starred in the selectively beloved musical Grease 2. Her big break came in 1983’s Scarface, and after that she worked seemingly ceaselessly. In the next decade alone she starred in The Witches of Eastwick, Married to the Mob, Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, and The Age of Innocence, and earned three Oscar nominations.
Pfeiffer’s undeniable beauty helped get her through Hollywood’s door, but it was the intelligence and humor she brought to her carefully chosen roles—her camp classic Catwoman, her Oscar-nominated Madame de Tourvel—that really made her a star.
“We met in an odd way,” says Steve Kloves, a longtime friend who wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys, in which Pfeiffer played a dazzling but troubled lounge singer. “I had Baker Boys floating around, and it wasn’t getting made. I had become friends with Peter Horton [Pfeiffer’s first husband], and then I became friends with Michelle. We both smoked at the time, so we would go into the kitchen to smoke and talk, and that’s how I got to know her. When it was decided that I was the guy to direct the movie, I offered it to Michelle, and it took me about a week to convince her to do it.
“I remember why I wanted to work with her. There’s the first impression, of her being so beautiful, but that wasn’t an asset to me. Sitting in the kitchen with her all those nights, I realized how funny and smart she was, and that she was interested in the details of things. I came to see her in a completely different way, and I liked the idea of confounding expectations.”
Throughout her career Pfeiffer has maintained that wildcard image. She has appeared onscreen as everything from an ingenue to an action hero, but she doesn’t feel as though she has ever been entirely understood.
“Some of the performances I have felt the best about are ones for which I’ve gotten panned,” she says. “The ones that make me cringe are typically when I got the best reviews. I saw Scarface and I went, ‘Eh, I’m okay.’ I rarely like my work. I only look at films once. It’s just too painful.”
Since 1993 Pfeiffer has been married to the writer and producer David E. Kelley, whose work includes Big Little Lies and The Undoing. (Despite the fact that he and Pfeiffer were both recently working on projects about Manhattan’s one percent, Pfeiffer says they didn’t compare notes. “I didn’t want to know anything about The Undoing,” she says. “I didn’t read the book. I wanted to enjoy it just like everybody else. In fact, during the last episode, I was getting spammed with texts from everyone I know trying to guess who had done it. I kept saying, ‘I don’t know,’ but nobody believed me.”)
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When the pair wed, Pfeiffer had already begun the process of adopting their daughter Claudia, now 27; their son John Henry was born a year later. And while she continued to work after having children—starring in, among other things, Dangerous Minds, One Fine Day, I Am Sam, and White Oleander—her priorities changed.
“Before the kids were born, my work was my life—and it was in a good way,” she says. “When they were small, I could just pack them up and bring them with me. But then it became, ‘Okay, how long will this separate the family unit?’ When they got into school it became even more complicated, because I didn’t want to just take them out of their routine, so I would shoot in the summer and tried to not be away for more than two or three weeks at a time. It became challenging for people to hire me, because it was too complicated. It was easier to get somebody else to do the part.”
Before she knew it, Pfeiffer says, her unintentional hiatus had stretched to five years. “I realized my daughter was looking at colleges, and I saw the writing on the wall,” she says. “I thought, This is going to hit me really hard. It’s time for me to get back into moviemaking.”
It wasn’t quite so simple. “Your seat is never saved in this industry. It’s very competitive,” Pfeiffer says. “There’s that transition time when you’re not the ingenue and you’re not really old enough to be the grandmother—you’re not old enough to play Frances. I’m at an age when the parts are getting more interesting again for me. I guess the timing of it really worked out, because I don’t feel I missed out on much.
That could be because Pfeiffer has found other ways to express her creativity. In 2019 she launched Henry Rose, a line of nontoxic fragrances and beauty products she spent nearly a decade developing. And even though she tells me, “I’ve never had any desire to share my private world with the public,” she has become an unintentional Instagram star, earning nearly 2 million followers with selfies, throwbacks, and the occasional twist—like a recent post asking the actress Kate Beckinsale for advice on a finicky feline. (Beckinsale offered her two cents, suggesting a larger water bowl, and then added, “I can’t believe I just gave Catwoman cat advice.”)
Pfeiffer also picked up where she left off onscreen. Since 2007 she has appeared in such movies as Hairspray, Mother!, and Murder on the Orient Express, as well as Marvel franchises.
“Michelle is the epitome of effortless cool,” says Elle Fanning, who starred opposite Pfeiffer in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. “Here we were on a huge set as part of this massive machine, and Michelle came in and made it fun for everyone. It’s inspiring to see someone who has done everything she has still willing to make believe.”
She’s not planning to stop soon. Once production can begin again in Hollywood, Pfeiffer is set to star in an Ant-Man sequel and opposite Annette Bening in the thriller Turn of Mind. She’ll also portray former First Lady Betty Ford in a Showtime series directed by The Undoing‘s Susanne Bier. Beyond that? “I want to do more theater,” she says. “I’ve got too much on my plate at the moment, but that’s the thing I wish that I had been able to do more of.”
Of course, if anyone can wriggle out of having too many obligations, it’s Pfeiffer. “It’s easier to have a French exit these days than it was many years ago,” she says, grinning. “Now you can just text people and say, ‘I had to run, didn’t want to be rude.’ ”
Photographs by Shaniqwa Jarvis Styled by Samantha McMillen
In this story: Hair by Richard Marin for Oribe. Makeup by Valli O’Reilly at Zenobia. Tailoring by Hasmik Kourinian. Set design by Evan Jourden. Floral design by Maurice at BloomandPlume.com. Production by Viewfinders LA. Shot at Smashbox Studios, L.A.